Last night we tearfully gave thanks and bid farewell to Libby Davies, who served as Member of Parliament for the Vancouver East riding for 18 years before announcing her retirement earlier this summer. I was honoured and humbled to be asked to deliver a speech at her retirement party. Here's what I said:
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
This feels like one of the most important speeches I will ever give.
It is deeply important to me because it is an opportunity to acknowledge a friend, teacher, a mentor, and a woman who has been one of my greatest heroes throughout my entire adult life.
It is an opportunity to acknowledge a woman whose leadership has been transformative for so many of us, for the issues we care most deeply about, and for our country
It is a moment to be deeply grateful as we pause and reflect. As we stand here with you, Libby, as you have stood with us for so many years.
Libby, this is our moment to say thank you.
I want to begin with a story that I just love, because it really captures the essence of who Libby is as an MP and as a person that is so willing to take on some of our most pressing human rights issues – even when those issue are difficult, complex, controversial, and even if there is not a lot of political support
In 1997, Libby was elected for the first of her six terms as the Member of Parliament for Vancouver East. I can only imagine how daunting that first day on the hill would feel like as a new MP. But for Libby, it was obvious what she had to do. While walking to hear the speech from the throne, she crossed paths with Allan Rock, the newly appointed minister of health.
Libby took that opportunity to introduce herself and tell Allan Rock about the public health emergency that was taking place in her community – escalating rates of overdose, HIV, Hepatitis and other harms resulting from injection drug use in the DTES. She told Allan Rock that this was a life and death issue. Rock said he was delighted to meet her and suggested they set up a meeting.
Libby followed up by email, by letter, she followed up by phone. And no response. So she walked down to his office and put her activist background to work – she engaged in a one-woman sit-in where she told the receptionist she had been trying to get an appointment for over a month. And they had not replied, so she was no leaving until she was given an appointment. She smiled with that wonderful Libby smile, and took a seat. Oh, and she added that the media was outside.
Next thing she knew, she had an appointment with Allan Rock.
And six years later, it was right here in Van East, that North America’s first sanctioned supervised injection site opened its doors, and is now a protected service under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I can not say enough about Libby’s leadership on this issue, her fight to save Vancouver’s supervised injection facility, her willingness to speak out for heroin assisted therapy and other innovative and compassionate approaches to addiction, and her work to challenge the laws create immense harm.
Libby has continued to fight so hard for harm reduction services, and I want to share a few words from Dean Wilson, a leader in Canada's drug policy reform movement, a long time member of VANDU, and a plaintiff in the Supreme Court of Canada case that saved Insite.
Dean is commenting on C-2 which is legislation that Harper crafted in order to circumvent the SCC’s decision in Insite and stop any additional supervised injection sites from opening.
“The moment I liked best with Libby was when I had mentioned in my testimony at the Senate Hearings on bill C-2 that Jesus would have supported safe injection sites, her eyes lit up and she said that that quote had driven the Conservatives nuts. This was at the end of her career and you could tell she still had the passion for politics, I will truly miss her and all she does for my community.”
So now we have a sense of what Libby’s first day on the hill involved. And I want to take a moment to tell you about my first day on the hill, as an activist trying to create change and as a person who was about to realize the depth of Libby’s commitment to her community.
I will take you back to 2004. I was a law student and volunteer with Pivot, which was all volunteers at the time, and we has spent the last year or more collecting statements from sex workers from the Downtown Eastside on the effects of Canada’s prostitution laws. We had 95 statements that were all collected in a massive binder, which we called Voices for Dignity. Now we just needed somebody to read it.
How was Pivot, a completely unknown advocacy organization, going to get the governments attention?
Fortunately, we had Libby, who was deeply committed to fighting for sex workers' rights and safety.
She was the first MP to raise the issue of missing and murdered women in Canada. She was also the first MP to raise the issue of violence against sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Libby brought this issue forward at a time when governments were refusing to pay attention to this issue – when the combination of societal denial, discrimination, fear, and devaluing of sex workers lives made this a politically challenging issue. But it was obviously an issue of critical importance.
We knew Libby was committed to this issue, and was committed ensuring that sex workers voices were heard by parliament.
So we called her, and Libby. She told me to about a few people that I should try to meet with, by some miracle (and by miracle, I mean because of Libby) I managed to secure 13 meetings, one being with the Minister of Justice and one with Minister of Public Safety.
I wrangled a free plane ticket to Ottawa, and found a couch to sleep on.
I borrowed the biggest suitcase I could find and crammed 13 copies of my 350 page report inside. Without any room for clothes in my bag, the suit that I was wearing, which my mom bought for me, was going to have to carry me through the week.
Having never been to Parliament, Libby coached me through it all. And on that very exciting morning as I made my way to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, I realized what was about to happen, and started to feel pretty unwell. And then I started to feel really unwell. And then proceeded to throw up, which is not ideal for so many reasons, including that I was about to meet with two ministers and I was wearing the only clothes that I had.
So what do I do? I make my way immediately to Libby’s office and collapse on her couch. Libby and her team helped tidy me up, and convinced me that the vomit on the bottom of my pants looked like salt from the snowy road outside,
Even more importantly, she told me I could do this. She walked me down the hall in the directly of my meetings and I was on my way.
And I took Libby’s words – “you can do this” – and I filed them in that place in my mind where I go when I need a dose of courage and inspiration. And in all of my years fighting for sex workers rights, Libby’s words, her support, and her commitment was a key factor that kept me going.
So I tell you this story as an example of who Libby is and how she has been a truly different politician.
Politicians are supposed to help their constituents be heard -- but how many can say they will do everything in their power to ensure that the most marginalized voices are heard by government
It shows her commitment to Canada being a true democracy – where all voices are able to reach government, where all voices are heard, equally considered, and where law and policy is based on evidence, dignity, and human rights.
And I want to tell you what the movement has to say about Libby – so I asked Amy Lebovitch and Sheri Kiselbach, who are leaders within Canada’s sex workers rights movement and both were plaintiffs in the challenges to Canada’s sex work laws – what they wanted to say to you – Libby:
Amy said: “Libby’s strong, unwavering support for me and my sex working colleagues is ever present in my life. In this world, which often views us as disposable, Libby does not see us that way. Libby sees us as human beings. People deserving of human rights. While others in her position have stayed silent, Libby has used her public platform to further what we, as sex works have been calling for, for decades - decriminalization. Her words and actions for my community will not be forgotten. As a sex worker, I want to thank Libby for her love and support. And for listening. Listening to sex workers and believing in us”
Sheri said: “Libby was a hard working and honest politician who maintained a strong grass roots approach when working with people and diverse communities. She cared about others and really listened. She has consistently raised issues of concern to her constituents for immediate action to protect the safety and rights of Sex Workers. I applaud her ground breaking work. Thank you for your hard work, service, dedication and for your love of the community.”
As you can see, Libby demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the activism that takes place in Van East – and the social justice vision of her constituents.
She worked on those issues because it was the right thing to do – not because it would attract votes or for political advantage.
I have mentioned just a few, but there are so pressing human rights issues that Libby fought for:
- A national housing strategy. In 1998 and 2001, she undertook National Housing Tours and was able to secure federal funds dedicated to ending homelessness. In 2005, she helped to negotiate a budget deal with Paul Martin’s Liberal government that committed $1.6 billion to affordable housing;
- Marijuana law reform;
- She successfully negotiated parliamentary support for the need to address prescriptions drug shortages;
- Government support for survivors of Thalidomide;
- Physician-assisted death.
And marriage equality and it is so worth noting was the first openly lesbian politician in the House of Commons.
Before that, as a city councillor, Libby did so many other amazing things. Just two examples: in order to get Vancouver deemed a nuclear free city, she swam around war ships in English Bay, and she took at delegation to Washington state to investigate the US for weapons of mass destruction.
And the list goes on.
After 40 years of public service… after being in parliament for 18 years and six consecutive election victories - on her final day in the House of Commons, she read a poem written by Sandy Cameron, an activist from the DTES.
Here is an excerpt:
The map we inherited
isn't any good.
The old roads mislead
and the landscape keeps changing.
People are confused
and drift from place to place,
clothes scorched by fire
eyes red with smoke.
I asked Stephen Lewis, a Canadian human rights hero, to share a few words about Libby’s role in Parliament, he said,
“There were two astonishing facets to Libby’s role as a parliamentarian. First, she had a grasp of every conceivable subject and spoke effortlessly on every issue. It was mind-boggling. There was no other member of our party, or indeed of any party, who so authoritatively carried debate. Second, Libby never made a single speech where she didn’t compliment the MP who had introduced the motion, or someone who had spoken before her. It was an unprecedented show of political generosity. In a mean-spirited House of Commons, she was a beacon of civility who made us proud.”
Libby, what an emotional time, what an exciting time, and what a beautiful time to fill you with love as you enter the next stage of your life and career. You are a person of incredible integrity, bold and courageous leadership, and endless compassion and selflessness.
Know you have changed our country, you have changed our city, and you have impacted each and every one of us by just being you – by being so true to who you are the community you represent.
We love you.